On her album Fan Dance, Sam Phillips sings:
Burning light inside my dreams
I wake up in the dark
The light is outside my door.
Love is everywhere I go.
That could be the song of Jack O’Brien, The Tree of Life’s central character.
Jack lives with deep wounds—the loss of a loved one, a lifetime of conflict with his father, sympathy for his suffering mother. Adulthood seems so dark and empty. His quest for peace leads him back to memories of an idyllic childhood in a Texas town, and beyond, into visions of how the universe began. In this concert of calamity, there are occasional traces of melody and grace.
Is beauty leading him through hardship to consolation, or just leading him on?
The Tree of Life flows like the stretch of the river we traveled in 2005’s The New World, expanding questions we explored with Captain John Smith and the inquisitive native princess Rebecca (“Pocahontas”). Smith felt the call of grace—but the pounding drum of his own ambitions kept him from finding peace. He ended up alone. Rebecca, meanwhile, found joy in marriage to a humble husband who she described as being “like a tree,” firmly rooted, reaching upward.
Jack picks up where John Smith left off, carrying his restless heart to God’s doorstep. His search for a melody in creation’s cacophony becomes the film’s main theme.
That is what the film seems to be about. But as Roger Ebert has famously said, “A film is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it.”
And it is in the “how” of the movie that I found some difficulty.
Tree of Life is an often exhilarating rush of Malick’s typically poetic imagery. But I was not swept away into epiphanies as I was while watching The New World. I found myself distracted, even detached.
I’ll venture some guesses as to why:
1. The Tree of Life has been compared to the great Andrei Tarkovsky’s films—especially Zerkalo (The Mirror), which is a similar meditation on memory and creation. Tarkovsky was gifted in crafting visions that feel truly alien to our experience, characterized by a unique surreality. The handmade visuals that the great special effects wizard Douglas Trumbull devised for this film’s cosmic excursions are awe-inspiring, but they’re interspersed with images that seemed very familiar. Instead of rising from Jack’s imagination, they seemed to have been cut-and-pasted from National Geographic image galleries and NOVA programs.
Were there just too many visual clichés along the way? Or did my my feeling of detachment come, in part, from living in an age when such wonderous images are common, even just a click away?
2. Can a film be too ponderous?
I was engrossed in the daily lives, sufferings, and joys of The New World’s characters. But The Tree of Life’s tour guides are so angst-burdened, perpetually probing and prodding the images with soulful questions, that I couldn’t settle into the scenarios and stories long enough to care.
In The New World, Rebecca is persuasively particular. She’s never reduced to an archetype. But the angelic, ethereal Mrs. O’Brien in The Tree of Life is an unconvincing angel whose feet rarely touch the ground. She sends platitudes drifting through the movie like dandelion seeds. I laughed when Slate magazine’s Dana Stevens compared Mrs. O’Brien’s lectures—“Love every leaf, every ray of light!"—to the way Stevens parents her own children: “Me to my daughter last night, loudly: ‘GO TO BED!’”
Perhaps the film’s meditation was just too overbearing for me, using questions to heavy-handedly compel instead of quietly invite.
3. I’m surprised to be calling a Malick film “preachy.” But there are moments that reminded me of, yes, “Christian entertainment”—lessons and sentiments declared for our edification. For all of its spectacular “showing,” The Tree of Life seems a little too willing to “tell.” I was stunned when one obstinate character broke down and lamented how he had failed, how he hadn’t “noticed the glory.” It reminded me of Oskar Schindler’s breakdown at the end of Schindler’s List—in which he spells out his own character’s lesson in ways that might have been more powerful left to our intuition.
By contrast, The New World was spacious, giving me room to consider conclusions without too much help.
4. “I want to give the audience a hint of a scene,” said Orson Welles. “No more than that..... Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That’s what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”
Sounds good—but is Malick taking this minimalism too far? He gives us fragments of hints. Bits of beginnings. Clips of conclusions.
Those occasional moments in The New World and Days of Heaven that inspired a catch in the breath and a revelation are, instead, the building blocks of this film. The grace notes of his music—his signature maneuver—are now the primary element, which makes for very difficult jazz. It’s as if the movie’s whirling with a thousand little metaphor cyclones.
God forbid that Malick becomes predictable, pumping out pretty Malick-esque pictures. I’d hate for him to become a brand like Eddie Bauer, Coldplay, or Thomas Kinkade.
Despite these aggravations, I’m eager to see The Tree of Life again. Most of my best friends are people I have learned to trust over time and closer attention. I suspect I’ll warm to this movie more and more. Even though Malick did not launch me into the stratosphere of cinematic reverie as he has in the past, it seems foolish to complain. Perhaps I just need a second look.
Whatever the case, I doubt I’ll find a richer, more rewarding film in theatres this summer. Malick’s work reminds me of Tarkovsky’s declaration: “My function is to make whoever sees my films aware of his need to love and to give his love, and aware that beauty is summoning him.”
I can’t wait to see what he does next.